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Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Superconductor Guide: Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven
The musical influence of Ludwig van Beethoven is so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to sum up in one sentence. But here goes. Beethoven led the development of music from the formal, classical style of Mozart and Haydn in the 18th century to the wild Romanticism of the 19th.

That's pretty much it.

Along the way, he broke new ground in symphonies, string quartet and piano music. His vast output resounds with a fierce, humanist spirit, a love of nature, and (as expressed in the words of the Ninth Symphony) a fierce desire for universal brotherhood.

Here's a few of the essential works of Beethoven to get you started. As always, the hyperlinks go to recommended recordings.

Piano Sonata No. 21 "Waldstein"
It's hard to pick one among Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, and this writer will admit that the 'Waldstein' is a personal favorite. The galloping first movement is decked with difficult runs and trills. The slow central movement leads into the finale, with a searching theme of great beauty. A good place to start exploring the piano works. And if that doesn't work, try the 'Pathetique', the 'Appasionata' and the 'Moonlight' sonatas. No, they don't all have cool nicknames.

Symphony No. 5 in c minor
With its four hammered opening notes, the beginning of the Fifth has become a cliché. But what's amazing is that the entire symphony, all four movements, are constructed based on that theme. This style of musical development paved the way for the 'motivic' music of Wagner and Strauss.


Fidelio
When you write only one opera in your career, make it Fidelio. Although this work had a complex, tortured birth (and went through four different versions and a title change) the story of a wife who cross-dresses and poses as a prison guard in order to rescue her wrongfully jailed husband has particular resonance today. Highlights include the quartet 'Mir est so wunderbar' and the Prisoners' Chorus: 'O welche lust.'

String Quartet No. 8 in e minor ("Razumovsky No. 2")
This is one of the more accessible string quartets, part of a set which Beethoven dedicated to his benefactor, a Russian prince. Its final movement incorporates the 'Hymn to the Tsar', a Russian melody that also shows up in the Grand Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

Symphony No. 9 in d minor
Written toward the very end of his life, and premiered when the composer was suffering from total deafness, the Ninth Symphony was the first work to add voice to the symphony's traditional four-movement structure. Its climactic movement, a setting of the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy" is one of the most popular melodies ever written. But it's the development of that theme to celestial heights (including a brain-melting double fugue for chorus and orchestra) that makes the Ninth a fitting climax to Beethoven's career.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Festival Preview: Glimmerglass Opera

The Alice Busch Opera House: Cooperstown, NY
This unique opera festival, located in Cooperstown, New York on the shores of Lake Otsego, presents four opera productions for the 2010 season. This is director Michael McLeod's final year running the Glimmerglass festival. 2011 will bring a new regime and an official name change...to the "Glimmerglass Festival."

Here's the operas.

Tosca
An exciting new production of the Puccini shocker replaces the company's old staging. Tosca never loses its power to stun an audience--even those who expect the flying leap at the end are often shaken by Puccini's most powerful score.
Performance Dates: July 9, 11, 16, 24, 26, 29, 31; Aug. 3, 7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 21, 24


Le Nozze di Figaro
This sublime Mozart comedy is ideally suited to a nocturnal setting on the shores of the lake. One wonders if the famous sliding walls of the opera house (the on-site ventilation system) will be left open during the last act.
Performance Dates: July17, 20, 22, 24, 27, 30; Aug. 2, 6, 9, 15, 20, 22

The Tender Land
Aaron Copland's opera receives a rare staging. The Tender Land is best known for featuring the music that would later be written as the ballet score Appalachian Spring.
July 10, 13, 19, 25; Aug. 1, 5, 7, 14, 21

Tolomeo
This opera company has a great deal of experience in baroque opera, and has been key in reviving American interest in the long-forgotten major works of Handel. Tolomeo is the composer's final opera written for the Royal Academy. These performances mark its U.S. premiere.
Performance dates: July 18, 23, 31; Aug. 8, 12, 14, 17, 23

In addition to the opera house, Cooperstown offers the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. (Avoid the weekend of July 23-26, as the baseball world descends on this sleepy lakeside town for the Hall of Fame inductions. There's good lodging, plenty of shopping in its quaint downtown areas, excellent restaurants and the nearby Ommegang Brewery. Also, be sure to check out the James Fenimore Cooper Museum and the Farmer's Museum, featuring the Cardiff Giant.
Photo: Peyton Lea/Glimmerglass Opera.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Piano In the Park

The piano in City Hall Park. Photo by Becca Dorstek


Any New Yorker can become a sidewalk musician for the next month, thanks to Play Me, I'm Yours. The art project by Luke Jerram is a collaboration with Sing for Hope, a charitable organization, and the New York City Parks Department. Sixty pianos, strategically scattered across the five boroughs are available for playing from 9am until 10 at night, by anyone who walks up and sits down.

The pianos, donated for the project have been colorfully painted and decorated by a roster of local artists. Each comes equipped with:
  • a small Ikea stool.
  • Some sheet music
  • A clear set of rules.
  • A plastic tarp in case of inclement weather.
There is a ten-minute limit per performer if there is a line.


I got to play one of them tonight, as dusk settled over City Hall Park. It was a colorful, rainbow-bedecked old upright painted in a swirl of psychedelic yellow and orange. Sheet music was provided: in this case Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" and Beethoven's Für Elise.

Not being much of a sight-reader, (I read music but lack the coordination to play at sight) I opted for the one thing I do know how to play. That's the Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which I picked out on my first electronic keyboard when I was maybe 10 years old. As I figured out the notes in a couple of keys (OK, C and F Major), I added some simple left-hand chords so it wouldn't sound too thin.

As I played, I felt what Mr. Jerram may have intended: a deep sense of personal satisfaction in my own poor ability. Not to mention that I had something to write about other than vuvuzelas.

The piano project will remain on the streets of New York until july 5th, 2010, when the instruments will be donated.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Essential Works: Five great pieces by Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz: Composer, conductor, critic.
Probing the complex sonic world of Berlioz.

As a composer, Hector Berlioz was a maverick in 19th century Paris. Although his career had its share of successes, his unorthodox compositional style and acerbic critical writing earned him plenty of enmity in the cutthroat world of French music.

Berlioz' music was championed by Franz Liszt and rediscovered after his death. Today, his orchestral works, songs and operas have survived, even as many of the popular composers of his day have faded into obscurity.

Here's a guide to the best of Berlioz.

Symphonie-fantastique
Berlioz wrote this work based on his obsession with Harriet Smithson, an English actress whom he saw in a performance of Hamlet. The symphony, subtitled 'Episodes in the life of an Artist," chronicles a twisted version of his obsession with Ms. Smithson over five movements of increasing darkness. It climaxes with the phantasmagorical 'Dream of a Witches' Sabbath' where his love interest is cast as the blood-spattered Whore of Babylon. Whew!

Requiem (Grande Messe de Morts)
Orchestral and choral overload are the order of the day in this gigantic death mass. Berlioz deploys enormous orchestreal forces. The most notable moment is the Tuba Mirum, where the heavenly trumpets are played by four separate brass choirs, each occupying a corner of the hall. Guaranteed to wake the dead.

Romeo et Juliette
This is an elaborate hybrid, a symphony that re-tells the story of Shakespeare's play with the soloists against a rich orchestral background. Berlioz also set 'Much Ado About nothing as the opera Beatrice et Benedict.

Le Damnation de Faust
This 'symphonic drama' sets the Faust legend against an amazing landscape of chorus and orchestra. From the stirring Hungarian March to the love-music between Faust and Marguerite, this is one if Berlioz' most Romantic scores. The actual Damnation Scene, a ride into Hell when Faust is delivered into the hands of a demonic chorus singing in gibberish, is a theatrical tour de force.

Les Troyens
Berlioz had great ambitions with this five-act opera which retells the story of the fall of Troy and the subsequent wanderings of Aeneas and his people en route to the eventual founding of Rome. The opera was too ambitious for Parisian impresarios, who split the opera in two and then refused to perform the first half. Today, the whole five act work is regarded as a masterpiece of orchestration and story-telling.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Metropolitan Opera Announces 2010 'Vuvuzela Initiative.'

HOOOONNNNNNNK!!!!

The Metropolitan Opera has announced that the vuvuzela, the plastic B♭ horns that are a prevailing feature of the FIFA World Cup will be 'employed extensively' in the coming 2010 opera season.


Other instruments, such as the kuduzela, will be added for forthcoming operas including Don Pasquale and Die Walküre.

'The vuvuzela is light, easy to carry, and easy to clean and maintain,' a representative said. 'By handing them to members of our audience, we allow them to be part of the orchestral experience'.

Audience members who want to contribute to the vuvuzela drone at the opera house will only be able to do so from the Met's parterre seats. 'We know the people in our more reasonably priced seats want to join in the fun of adding the texture of vuvuzelas to the great works of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. But if they can't afford to toot, no one will give a hoot.'

The opera company sees the vuvuzela as a perfectly valid replacement for the French Horns, ongoing negotiations with certain Chinese manufacturers may lead to the production of slide vuvuzelas for the trombonists, a giant bass vuvuzela for the tuba players, and smaller models for the woodwinds. All will play in B♭.

'We just can't afford brass players,' the representative continued. 'The vuvuzela produces a round, beautiful tone that suits our orchestra's profile. And at 120 decibels per blast, the cost-for-volume benefits speak for themselves.'

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Concert Review: Music of the Past, Present, and Future at the New York Philharmonic

Håkan Hardenberger on the trumpet. Photo courtesy Yamaha Corporation © 2010.
Friday morning's New York Philharmonic concert featured the orchestra's second performance of Aerial, a two-movement concerto for trumpet and orchestra by Austrian composer H.K. Gruber. To ease the pill of modern music for concert-goers, Music Director Alan Gilbert thoughtfully sandwiched the work between a Mozart symphony and two familiar works by Richard Wagner.

The concert opened with an ethereal performance of the Siegfried Idyll, Wagner's only work written to a chamber-orchestra scale. The stripped down Philharmonic produced lovely sounds, particularly the stirring horn solo played by Philip Myers and the cheerful bird-calls in the woodwinds. The Idyll was written as a birthday present for Cosima Wagner, and is built from many of the themes that would later be used to construct the finished score of the opera Siegfried.


Trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger alternated between three different instruments to meet the musical challenge of Aerial. Switching between regular trumpet, piccolo trumpet and a cow horn, he produced tentative sounds at first, soaring to incredible heights against a melodic wash of orchestral texture. The second movement was far mor exciting, as the composer set difficult trumpet parts against stuttering, kinetic rhythms inspired by Slavic dances. Musically, it reminded one of the lurching dance movements of Mahler, with its shadowy passages and complicated cross-rhythms.

Mozart's Symphony No. 25 is one of the first products of his maturity, We were back down to a smaller orchestra for it, as the crack Philharmonic players delved into the four movements with joy. Mr. Gilbert led a tight performance, playing the notes as the composer intended with a precise sense of rhythm. It may not have been a flashy performance, but it was beautiful.

The concert concluded with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Wagner's most romantic opera. From the sounding of the first three, dissonant chords (including the famous "Tristan Chord") Mr. Gilbert led a sweeping performance that consolidated all the drama and longing of the opera into fifteen beautiful minutes. The Liebestod, (Isolde's final aria, sung over Tristan's corpse) was sung out by the sweeping strings and soaring horns of the Philharmonic in a peroration of Wagner's "music of the future." If this is an indication of how this young Wunderkind conducts Wagner, maybe he should get a gig at the opera house next door.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Holender Hired as Met Consultant

Ioan Holander
Reposted from Examiner.com:

According to a report in Die Presse and first reported on these shores by our friends over at Parterre Box, the Austrian opera administrator Ioan Holender has signed a two-year agreement to act as a consultant at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Holander is the former General Manager of the Vienna State Opera.


Although ticket sales at the Met have been strong in recent years, the company has been plagued with complaint over its new direction under the leadership of General Manager Peter Gelb. The 2009-2010 season was bedeviled with artist cancellations, disastrous new productions of audience favorites (Tosca) and glitzy, big-name productions that were met with critical and audience derision (Attila).

Read the rest of the article at my Examiner.com page!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

CD Review: Into the Abyss with René Pape

Did somebody say...SATAN? René Pape looking devilish.


This fine recital disc from German bass René Pape is a kind of abbreviated capsule of his career in the last 15 years. Mr. Pape first rose to prominence at Bayreuth, singing the role of Fasolt in a production of Das Rheingold that is more remembered for its hideous costumes than its singing. Since then, he has built an international reputation as a bass with a fine, rich voice, capable of singing the heavy Wagner bass roles as well as the various operatic portrayals of the Devil.



First the demonic. The disc opens with Mr. Pape essaying the role of Mephistopheles in three different operas. Two excerpts from Gounod's Faust, one from Boito's Mefistofele and an aria from Berlioz' Le Damnation de Faust. Mr. Pape uses his warm bass-baritone instrument to convey the power of evil and the devil's ability to repeatedly seduce Faust and win his immortal soul in each of these operas.

The set includes two excerpts from The Demon, a rarely heard Russian opera from the pen of Anton Rubinstein. These performances make a case to return Rubinstein's neglected work to the repertory. Based on a poem by Lermontov, this Russian work allows Mr. Pape the chance to display another side of his versatile instrument and skill in the Russian repertoire.

Another highlight is Mr. Pape's first recording as Wotan. The Rheingold Wotan is the highest-written of the character's three appearances in the Ring. Although it is a short excerpt from the final scene the opera, Mr. Pape projects noble tone and sounds comfortable in the role's higher register. His voice has grown in power and flexibiltiy ever since that debut, although it would be lovely to have his interpretation of Fasolt's Scene II arietta included as it is one of Wagner's loveliest vocal melodies.

The kingly roles in question are Philip in Don Carlo, the Russian tsar Boris Godunov, and King Marke in Tristan. This is a powerful "Ella giamma m'amo" although one wishes that Mr. Pape would elect to record the aria in its original French. The Boris excerpt is a taster for his forthcoming appearance in the title role at the Metropolitan Opera. Finally, King Marke is one of Mr. Pape's trademark parts, and his expertise in portraying opera's most famous cuckold is evident in this sensitive reading of Marke's Act II monologue.

James Levine Cancels Tanglewood Appearances

James Levine in action, but not this summer.
Reposted from Examiner.com
James Levine will not conduct at Tanglewood this summer.

The music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will not be conducting the eight concerts that he was scheduled to lead this summer at the arts festival in Lenox, MA.

According to a report in today's Boston Globe, Mr. Levine was forced to withdraw from the concerts on advice from his doctors. Recent medical problems, forced Mr. Levine to miss 22 concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra over the 2009-2010 season. He had back surgery two months ago. However, he is not sufficiently recuperated to go back to work.

Please visit my Examiner.com page to read the rest of the article.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Philadelphia Orchestra gets its "Super" Conductor

The Philadelphia Orchestra have announced that Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been appointed as their music director, starting in the 2012 season. The French-Canadian conductor will become the eighth music director in the orchestra's 110-year history.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin in full flight.


This appointment marks the end of a long search for the financially troubled orchestra, which has been without a music director since 2006. A native of Montréal, Mr. Nézet-Séguin made a splash on the East Coast conducting the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Carmen at the end of 2009.

Founded in 1900, the Philadelphia Orchestra rose to prominence under the leadership of luminary conductors such as Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy and more recently, Wolfgang Sawallisch. However, the appointment of pianist/conductor Christoph Eschenbach as Music Director in 2004 marked the start of a downward spiral. Orchestra members felt a lack of chemistry with Mr. Eschenbach, and his contract was abruptly terminated in 2006.



In recent years, the orchestra has been under the stewardship of Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit. However, a lack of ticket sales at the Kimmel Center, the loss of sponsorship dollars due to the 2008 economic collapse, and other economic issues have forced the acclaimed orchestra to the brink of insolvency. This appointment is the first step on the road back to greatness.

With the appointment of the 35-year-old Mr. Nézet-Séguin, Philadelphia is sending a message that they are committed to youth and longevity as well as music making. This is a positive message to send at the start of their summer concert season. We here at Superconductor would like to wish him great success in his tenure, and hope that his presence on the podium will lead to many seasons of great music in Philadelphia.

Photo © Marco Borggreve

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Concert Review: Time Travel with the Philharmonic

A girl and her Strad: Lisa Batiashvili.
Photo © 2008 Sony Classics
On Friday afternoon, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a program that time-traveled backwards, starting with the modern music of Philharmonic composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg and ending with the post-Beethovenian symphonic writing of Johannes Brahms.

Arena, written as a final piece for the initial Sibelius conducting competition in 1995, is a challenge for any conductor. This shifting, surging carpet of sound is laced with rhythmic tricks and tempo changes containing many hidden pitfalls for the man holding the baton. Mr. Gilbert avoided all of these, leading his forces in a nimble performance. This performance of Arena was a taster for the season finale in three weeks, which will feature Al largo, a new work by Mr. Lindberg, paired with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.



The Finnish connection continued with a superb reading of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. One of that composer's most popular (and most optimistic) works, the Concerto featured soloist Lisa Batiashvili. She played with elegance and precision, from the technical double-stops and difficult cadenzas of the first movement to the soft, singing lines of the second. The raucous finale, based on a Finnish folk dance, raised the energy level of the entire performance, allowing the orchestra and soloist to soar together to a triumphant close.

Alan Gilbert's interpretation of the Brahms Second Symphony was less successful. This is the most bucolic of Brahms' four symphonies, evoking the sunny countryside and cheerful peasant vein that Beethoven also explored in his Pastorale Symphony. However, in Mr. Gilbert's hands, the first three movements of the work lacked momentum and drive. The orchestral textures drawn from the Philharmonic were very beautiful, and lovingly played. But the thrust itself was missing. Only in the Finale did the work really take off, as the orchestra bit into the theme and began to race for home. It was a lovely tour through the Austrian countryside, but one wishes that Mr. Gilbert would step on the accelarator more often.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The record label from the movie Valkyrie.
Photo by the author.
So this morning, I'm watching Valkyrie, Brian Singer's film about the plot to bump off Adolf Hitler in 1943. About 20 minutes in there's an instrumental performance of the Ride of the Valkyries, and a clear shot of the record label of the LP that is playing the music.

The record label translates as:
Die Walküre, Wagner
Ride of the Valkyries
Berlin Philharmonic
conducted by Music Director Hans Knappertsbusch.
Catalogue No. 21004. Edition No. 66705

Hans Knappertsbusch was one of the greatest music directors of Germany, both before and after the war. However, his politics and maverick leanings made him a target for Joseph Goebbels. In fact, although he held the life-time position of the Bavarian State Orchestra, and the directorship of the Munich Opera, he was stripped of those positions in a bit of political maneuvering, either under Goebbels' orders or at the personal order of Hitler.

"Kna", as he was known, spent most the war working in Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic. His jovial nature, sense of humor, and almost psychic rapport with the orchestra (not to mention his dislike of rehearsals!) can be heard on recordings made in the 1950s: a Vienna Die Meistersinger and of course, the 1951 and 1962 recordings of Parsifal, made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and released commercially on LP and later on CD.

However, while Knappertsbusch was the director of the Munich and Vienna orchestras, he never worked as general music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. That was Wilhelm Furtwängler's job.

From the dog on the label, it's RCA Victor, except that it says "Grammophon." All Berlin Philharmonic recordings would have been on Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft--they had an exclusive contract with the orchestra until Claudio Abbado became music director in the 1990s. Currently, the Berliners record for EMI under the baton of their music director, Sir Simon Rattle.

According to IMDB, the recording used in the film (which is in full stereo, and with none of the hiss that marked mono recordings from the 1940s and before) is as follows:

"Die Walküre: Ride Of The Valkyries"
Written by Richard Wagner
Performed by The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Uwe Mund, conductor (uncredited)
Courtesy of Naxos

Finally, the real Colonel von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise's character) apparently hated Wagner's music.

OK. Time to go pick holes in Inglourious Basterds!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Even Cowgirls Get the Accolades

Pistol-packin' Deborah is prepared to sing Minnie.
The San Francisco Opera has released preview footage of Deborah Voigt as Minnie in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.

Written for a premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, La Fanciulla adapts a David Belasco play set in the Old West, transporting the characters into an Italian opera. If this sounds like a bizarre Star Trek episode, you're not far off.

Although certain lines in the libretto ("Wisky per tutti!") don't translate well, this story makes for a marvelous Italian opera. It's so good that Andrew Lloyd Webber ripped whole chunks out of the score to write The Phantom of the Opera. Guess he found the music to be "really useful."



Minnie is a barmaid in a mining camp who acts as a maternal figure to the rough-hewn minors. She falls in love with the bandit Ramirrez in his "civilian" identity of Dick Johnson. When Johnson/Ramirrez is wounded by the sherrif Jack Rance, Minnie must decide whether or not to save him from the gallows. The title role is one of the most difficult female leads in the Italian repertory, made more difficult by the fact that while Minnie is on stage for almost all of the action, she does not get her own aria.

Ms. Voigt has made this role a specialty in recent years. It lies right in her vocal range, requiring a powerful, flexible soprano instrument that can manage the lyric outpourings and still have steel underneath for the heroic scenes in the last act.



La Fanciulla is due for a New York revival at the Met next season, with performances starting December 6. The revival stars Deborah Voigt and tenor Marcello Giordani. Ms. Voigt has also been engaged to sing upcoming performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Obituary: Jack Beeson (1921-2010)

Jack Beeson
Photo by Dietrich Dettman courtesy Boosey & Hawkes.

Jack Beeson, the American composer of the opera Lizzie Borden, died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, the New York Times reported today. The cause was congestive heart failure. He was 88.

Premiered in 1965, Lizzie Borden was Mr. Beeson's fourth opera, and it turned out to be his most famous. Using the historic axe-murder case as an examination of Greek tragedy (think Elektra in a pinafore) this opera became a popular staple at the New York City Opera in recent years. With Lauren Flanigan in the role of Lizzie's soon-to-be-murdered mother and soprano Phyllis Pancella swinging the axe as Lizzie, Mr. Beeson's opera made for a powerful evening of theater.

I once had the pleasure of attending a City Opera performance of Lizzie Borden, in my professional capacity as a critic. Sitting next to me in my house seat was Mr. Beeson, in his trademark bright red sport coat. As Ms. Flanigan reached for a spectacular high C-sharp, he leaned over to me and hissed "That's a high C-sharp!"


I answered, "I know."

I suppose he couldn't help himself. But that enthusiasm was characteristic of a composer who was basically an ebullient, erudite man who wrote some brilliant, underrated music.

A small, dapper figure with a great knowledge of music and personal intensity, Mr. Beeson was also a professor of music at Columbia University. At the end of his life, Mr. Beeson continued at Columbia as a professor emeritus, and was a loved, revered educator.

We've lost a great composer, a gentleman, and a scholar. May his departure lead to further exploration and performance of his works, including of course, a revival of Lizzie in his honor.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Heavy Metal at the Met


According to an article by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times, the Metropolitan Opera has had to resort to more than just member support in staging its new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.


The production, designed by Canadian director Robert Lepage, uses a large-scale set of planks that raise, lower, and change angles as needed to facilitate the portrayal of mountain-tops, dark forests and Nibelung caves. It's an ingenious solution to the scenery challenges of Wagner's work.

However, the 45-ton set has to be rolled on and off the giant Met stage, and stored on one of the company's huge "side stages" to make room for Tosca, Carmen, and Boris Godunov. The sheer weight of the set has required a quiet construction effort at the opera house, adding 65-foot steel supports underneath the offstage area.

To read the rest of the article, visit my Examiner.com page.
Photo by Yves Renaud
© 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!

Robert Schumann
It's Robert Schumann's 200th birthday, and what better way to celebrate than with a large doorstop box set with (most of) his major works on 35 discs?


Robert Schumann was a Renaissance man living in the 19th century. He created classic piano works that broke new ground for the instrument, abandoning traditional forms to create new Romantic ideals. He wrote unjustly neglected vocal music that served as a quiet influence on the development of song and choral works in German-speaking countries. And he was a sharp critic with a fearsome pen wgo encouraged and influenced other compos ers, most notably Johannes Brahms.

This solid box from DG is by no means complete, but it is an engaging 35-disc survey of the major Schumann works--or at least the recordings that DG and its "brother" company Decca have access to.

The choice of recordings here is not always perfect. (John Eliot Gardiner's "period" symphony cycle over Rafael Kubelik's? Really?) But they are still excellent performances. Highlights include:

  • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's long-out-of-print cycle of the songs

  • A reissue of the cantata "Die Paradise und die Peri" under the aforementioned Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
  • Scenes from Goethe's Faust, an underperformed cantata, conducted here by none other than the composer Benjamin Britten

  • Chamber music from the Hagen Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio

  • Great (Maurizio Pollini) and decent (Vladimir Ashkenazy) pianists surveying the vast piano catalogue.
There are some notable absences, (the opera Genoveva which was recorded for Teldec) but the sheer amount of music here and the low price makes this a worthy investment for any music enthusiast.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.